I am now firmly convinced that I am not making bread correctly.
See, cooking is not my mother’s forte. Oh, she can put a meal on the table and no one will go hungry, but she doesn’t enjoy doing it. It’s not a joy for her to feed her family. She has many other ways to show her love for folks, like that awesome care package she sent me last week.
So it’s not like I learned how to cook at my mother’s knee. She did encourage me to learn to cook, especially after she received her real estate agent’s license when we lived in Nebraska. I had to make a meal once a week, and I usually made this breaded parmesan chicken recipe I found in one of her Weight Watchers cookbooks. My parents were always doing WW, mainly because they were both in the Navy and both struggled with the weight requirements. Looking at old photos, I realize that they were both rather slender, but the Navy kept them on their toes, weight-wise.
However, it was from my mother that I learned to make at least one vegetable for every meal, if not two, and not to make certain veggies if starchy foods, like potatoes, were on the menu. To this day, I find it difficult to serve both corn and potatoes at the same meal without the mitigating influence of some other green veggie. My mom’s mantra was, “You need your chlorophyll!”
When Kurt and I first married, we were making Hamburger Helper more often than not. I didn’t really know how to cook and fell into the common misconception that it was too hard and it took too long to put anything on the table. I also had a job which kept me out of the house eleven hours a day, so it wasn’t like I was really thinking about cooking anyhow. Come to think of it, I think Kurt did most of the cooking, since he was working all of ten hours a week (yet making at least twice what I was, not that I’m bitter — oh, no).
Once we moved to Washington, I sort of fell into cooking. Kurt had been sent to the Middle East two weeks after we moved into our new house, and I wasn’t working. Living three thousand miles away from everyone I loved and most of what I knew left me trying to occupy my own time. My sister started to send me all these recipes, as her dietary needs pretty much require her to cook from scratch every night. Eventually I began to realize that cooking wasn’t nearly as difficult or as magical as I always thought it would be, once I had some basic skills under my belt.
Kurt came home to a cooking demon. I was so eager to show off all I had learned that he put on even more weight, not just your typical deployment fifteen pounds. They put on weight when they’re underway, you see, because they don’t get enough exercise (there were only five treadmills for over two hundred men on his last ship, and who wants to run on a treadmill every day for six months?), and because the food they serve on board ship isn’t exactly the healthiest. It’s whatever they can put out in a short time, regardless of nutritional content.
Fortunately, when you cook for yourself, you can do a much better job of regulating ingredients and fat content. It didn’t take him long to get rid of the extra weight, especially once I learned to cook more healthy options for him.
Basically, I’ve been honing my cooking skills ever since. This means that I’ve been cooking for roughly seven years, not terribly long, but long enough that I’m getting adventurous with my cooking. Now if I don’t have exactly the right ingredients, I’ll either substitute something I know will work, or I’ll just leave it out entirely. I never would have had the courage to do that when I first started cooking.
Now I’m wanting to break out a little bit. This means more baking. Baking confuddles me, though I know it shouldn’t. I’m intimidated by yeast, you see, so for me to want to make bread is pretty radical. I can make a mean quick bread — right now my favorite is a recipe of Mark Bittman’s that’s made from whole wheat flour, molasses, and buttermilk. So, so good, especially warm with a little bit of butter. Real butter, I mean. Last week I made two loaves of a hearth bread (the recipe’s on the back of the Better for Bread flour by Gold Medal, if you’re interested), but it just wasn’t quite right. It’s got a good flavor, yes, but there’s just something that isn’t right.
Last night we went out to dinner with our friends to this local Italian place, and right as we finished eating, this enormous load of dough was brought from the back room to the front part of the kitchen so it could be sectioned off. When I say “enormous,” I mean enormous. It was at least three feet in diameter and probably a foot tall. I was spell-bound by the process. As we were leaving, the Italian gent doing the sectioning handed Gracie a piece to take home.
It was so smooth and soft, pliable yet firm. Its texture was almost like that of a pink eraser, that slick and soft. It was just the tiniest bit tacky, yet still rather dry. It was, in a word, perfect. And it just proves that I cannot make decent dough. Mine is too heavy, too dense and thick.
But! This doesn’t mean I have given up. If it weren’t 11pm, I’d be in the kitchen now, trying to perfect my dough. Guess what I’m doing tomorrow?
Besides, is there any better scent than baking bread?? OK, brand-new baby ranks up there, but the aroma of baking bread is pretty much divine. It will be no sacrifice at all to bake loaves and loaves of homemade bread. None whatsoever.